I’ve always loved to read. It’s no wonder that through a myriad of life experiences, I’ve finally found my calling, and that’s to be a writer. And as any [good] writer will tell you, you can’t write if you don’t read. When I began losing my vision about seven years ago due to NMO (Neuromyelitis Optica), I could not read the novels on my shelf anymore; normal-sized print was no longer accessible to my failing eyes. I had to magnify my mail with a handheld magnifier. My vision loss was gradual, and eventually, I had to move on to using a CCTV. This was around the time I had just decided to return to grad school for Creative Writing, and I studied for the GRE using a CCTV–talk about motion sickness from all the scrolling I had to do! Still yet my vision worsened to where now I mostly use screen readers to do all my work on the computer. I was well aware of the irony of my beginning a M.F.A. in creative writing while at the same time growing illiterate.
At a seminar for the blind and visually impaired, I heard a blind man say that true literacy could not be achieved by audiobooks, that true literacy is only done through Braille. Because someone else is reading the words to you in an audiobook, there is a filter of sorts–you’re not truly “reading” the words yourself. Their intonation, pronunciation, etc., affect your perception of the writer’s words, and thus, you are not truly reading. When the man said this, a little voice in the back of my head knew that I would have to one day learn Braille.
My pet project last summer was to begin learning Braille, so as soon as May came around, I started one-on-one lessons with a Braille teacher through the Division for Blind Services. By the end of August, I was right on track, having finished grade 1 of Braille (uncontracted Braille), where each letter of the alphabet is represented by a symbol using the six-dot Braille cell. I began grade 2 (contracted Braille), where all sorts of words and letter fragments (e.g. “the,” “there,” “and,” “-ment,” “-ong,” “-ation,” etc.) are represented by other symbols. There was a lot to learn (read: memorize) in contracted Braille! I finished the second book in my Braille program and borrowed a novel from the National Library Service in order to practice reading but I kept coming across symbols that I didn’t recognize. I called my Braille teacher, and it turned out there is a third book to the Braille series, and that he would have to special-order it for me. Apparently, there wasn’t a single copy in the office because nobody had gotten as far as the third book yet in this fairly new Braille method. I had to laugh: to think I am an overachieving nerd in all academic aspects of life.
Contracted Braille is self-teachable since each subsequent lesson builds upon the previous lessons, but there are just so many darn things to memorize! I just got to the end of all my lessons last month, and it felt really good. It seems like all I want to do lately is read Braille. I guess I really do love reading. I missed it, and I didn’t even know it until I started doing it again. Braille is something one has to practice daily or else lose it very quickly. Now I’m on to attempting The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler all in Braille. The novel comes in three four-inch binders. Wish me luck.